PILGRIMAGE: Padua, Italy—Waiting In Hope by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Padua, Italy—Waiting In Hope by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

According to my guide book, the long rough wall a few yards to my left was built by the Romans.  That makes it sort of recent – Padua, the oldest city in northern Italy, was supposedly founded around 1200 BC by a Trojan prince, and Paduans boast of once having won a battle against the Spartans.

My walk through Padua this morning is making for a pleasant if jumbled tour of the halls of history: ancient Roman walls rub elbows with renaissance facades, while modern buildings stand alongside a few that date back to the Middle Ages.

With the Roman wall already behind me now, my map shows that I have to stroll several more blocks before I get to my next stop, the basilica built in honor of the city’s most famous citizen, Saint Anthony of Padua.  The book says that the building was begun in 1232, just one year after Anthony’s death!  That tells you something about his popularity at the time.

He was born in 1195 in Lisbon, and by the time he died in 1231 this Franciscan priest was revered all over Europe as a powerful preacher, and his countless healing miracles, including raising several people from the dead, had earned him the title thaumaturgus – “Saint Anthony the Wonderworker.”  Even 800 years later he is still one of the most popular saints of the Roman Catholic Church.

I smile as I remember my mother teaching us children that when something was lost we should ask Saint Anthony to help us find it.  Right now I’m counting on him to help me find the great basilica that bears his name.  Before long I turn a corner and find myself staring in wonder at one of the most interesting buildings I’ve seen on my sabbatical trip.

Several huge hemispherical domes make the Basilica of Saint Anthony seem Byzantine, but its many rounded arches give it a Romanesque feel, while several little belfries popping up above the roof line look like Turkish minarets, and a few buttresses and other touches are clearly gothic.  Somehow, though, this amazing structure of brown brick manages to harmonize all of these different architectural elements into a single joyful symphony.  I stand at a distance for a few minutes to enjoy the interplay of domes, arches, minarets, and gables.

Deciding that it’s time to visit the interior I head across the piazza and through the main doors.  Once inside the vast solemn space I gawk up at the beautifully decorated rounded vault of the ceiling and then squint toward the far corners of the nave.  I feel about the size of a mouse.

I make my way slowly toward the distant high altar enjoying the beautiful paintings and rich decorations; I feel the quiet, intense sense of reverence that fills this huge expanse.

When I reach Donatello’s magnificent main altar, a stiff, formal affair of marble and bronze, I turn left toward the huge side altar nearby that houses the tomb of the saint.  The devotion of the people kneeling there is palpable – I’ve never felt anything quite like it, in fact.  Since I find its marble arches, sparkling gold decorations, and beautiful carved panels showing Anthony’s miracles a bit overwhelming, I keep walking around to the rear of Anthony’s altar.

There in an open space behind the shrine I see several people kneeling, lost in meditation.  Their deep faith and devotion practically crackle through the hushed atmosphere.  Three others are standing at the upright stone slab that forms, at shoulder height, part of the rear of the altar.  Each of them is as still as a statue, praying with eyes closed and one hand touching the gray stone.  I quickly realize that this must be the back of Anthony’s sarcophagus left accessible for the veneration of the faithful.

One of the three people standing at the saint’s tomb blesses himself, turns and walks slowly away, and soon the second does the same, leaving the third, a middle-aged woman, with her head bowed and her right palm resting flat against the stone as if drawing some secret energy from the tomb.

Watching her standing quietly at the sarcophagus reminds me of the scene near the end of Matthew’s gospel when a great stone was rolled into place to seal the Savior’s tomb, and everyone left – almost everyone.  Matthew tells us that “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.”  What was Magdalene feeling and thinking as she sat there faithfully keeping watch at her friend’s grave on that first Holy Saturday?  Did she, too, go and gently lay her hand on the stone and pray quietly?  This woman standing here at the tomb of il santo seems like Mary Magdalene’s soul sister.

Suddenly I’m struck by the difference between the two.  Magdalene must have been overwhelmed by grief and anguish on the first Holy Saturday, since she had not yet experienced the risen Lord.  Her modern-day sister, then, has a great advantage over her, and may even know of the beautiful sermon that Saint Anthony himself once preached:

There is a threefold evening and a threefold morning, a threefold weeping and a threefold gladness.  The threefold evening is, first, the sad evening of the fall of our first parents in paradise; second, the sad evening of the passion and death of our redeemer; and third, the sad evening of our own fast-approaching death.

This was as far as Magdalene’s experience, her faith, and even her imagination could take her that Saturday: she was caught up in the sorrow of the “threefold evening.”  But she stayed there at the tomb keeping watch just the same.

Her sister praying here in the basilica, though, already knows the rest of the story – she understands that the terrible threefold evening does not last, but as Anthony put it in his sermon, in inevitably leads to morning: “The threefold morning is, first, the glad morning of the birth of the messiah; second the glad morning of the Lord’s resurrection; and third, the glad morning of our own future resurrection.”

That glorious second morning changed everything: death’s grip on the world was broken forever on Easter, and we were promised that we would all experience one day that third morning, “the glad morning of our own future resurrection.”

She hasn’t moved an inch; her hand is still resting gently against the stone.  It seems as if she is so certain the third morning is coming that she’s decided to wait for it right here at the tomb of her friend, Saint Anthony.

After a minute or two of indecision, and painfully aware of the weakness of my faith compared with that of Magdalene or of her sister keeping vigil here at the sarcophagus, I step hesitantly toward the sarcophagus until I’m standing beside the woman.  Slowly I extend my right hand and place my palm flat on the smooth, cool stone.  Then I close my eyes.


In the monastic tradition the service of “Vigils” is celebrated early every morning, before sunrise, as a way of reminding us that our lives are a vigil, a time of watchful waiting for the return of the Lord who will come some day at some unexpected moment.  The Easter Vigil is the church’s solemn liturgical way of keeping watch with Mary Magdalene at the tomb, but unlike Mary’s, this vigil is filled with joyful hope and confident anticipation.

If you were to live your life as a vigil, expecting the Lord to come at any moment, how might some of your behaviors or attitudes change?  How can you manage to keep yourself alert and watchful for the coming of the Lord in your life?


Sacred Scripture (Matthew 27:59-61)

So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock.  He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.  Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.


Wisdom of the Desert

It was said of Abba Arsenius that on Saturday evenings, preparing for the glory of Sunday, he would turn his back on the sun and stretch out his hands in prayer towards the heavens, till once again the sun shone on his face; then he would sit down.

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